The “Arab Spring”—a wave of mayhem—began late in 2010 and soon included, by the spring of 2011, the civil war in Syria. By now that war has cost over 200,000 lives, seen Syria’s disintegration into zones controlled by various, mostly radical factions, and sparked a refugee crisis that is now affecting not only surrounding countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey but Europe as well.
Just two years before Syria’s version of the “Spring” broke out, in 2009, then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was still engaged in indirect talks with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad aimed at returning all of the Golan Heights to Syria. The payback was supposed to be a Syrian commitment to peace and to exiting its alliance with Iran and Hizballah.
By now, no one in Israel—right, left, center, even far left—is heard lamenting that those talks did not lead to such a deal. In 2012, prominent left-of-center columnist and author Ari Shavit wrote:
I couldn’t help but think what would be happening today if the ideological position I had long held—peace in return for the Golan—had been accepted…. I have to admit that if the worldview I had championed had been applied, battalions of global jihadis would be camping near Ein Gev [beside the Sea of Galilee] and there would be Al-Qaida bases on the shores of [the lake]. Northern Israel and the country’s water sources would be bordering…on an armed, extremist Islamic entity that could not be controlled.
…Sooner or later, Israel would have been forced to once again ascend [the Golan]. But this time such an operation would bring ballistic missile barrages on Tel Aviv. The peace I had believed in and fought for would have turned into an enormous war in which it’s possible thousands would have been killed.
By now, three years after Shavit wrote those lines, the situation on the Syrian Golan—which abuts the Israeli part of the Golan to the east—is even worse. The Sunni jihadis, particularly the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, are still there in force. But Syria’s backer, Iran, now also has a growing presence, as in this report from Friday, August 21:
A commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards orchestrated Thursday’s rocket fire on northern Israel from Syria, military sources said late Thursday night….
According to a senior Israeli security official, Saeed Izadi, the head of the Palestinian Division of the Iranian al-Quds Force [an arm of the Revolutionary Guards] planned the attack….
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon warned the rocket fire was merely a “coming attraction” for future Iranian-funded attacks on Israel. With sanctions relief as part of the Iran nuclear deal, Tehran will increase support for its Middle East proxies, he maintained.
Of course, it wasn’t only Olmert who saw the Assad regime as a key to peace. Going back to the early 1990s, when a “peace” fever gripped Israel, all Israeli prime ministers except Ariel Sharon tried their hand at getting Assad Sr. (Hafez) or Jr. (Bashar) to go for Golan-for-peace. Prime Ministers Rabin, Peres, Barak, and Olmert offered the Golan lock, stock, and barrel; Prime Minister Netanyahu (during his first term, 1996-1999) was more concerned about Israel keeping some strategic parts of the Golan.
The offers were made despite the fact that, in 1981, the Knesset had passed the Golan Heights Law, which extended Israeli law to the Heights, by a 63-21 margin.
Golan-for-peace was also, of course, the regnant wisdom in Washington. In particular, Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and John Kerry pursued the Assads relentlessly in hopes of securing the prized deal.
Opponents of such a deal said that, first, the Assads’ Alawite regime was a minority regime and a pariah in the predominantly Sunni Middle East, and could not give up its snug place in the Iranian axis; and second, even if it could, the situation in multiconfessional Syria was inherently unstable and no agreement could substitute for the great strategic advantage that the Golan gives Israel.
The opponents were, of course, right on both counts; but settling scores is of no help in the current situation, where: Israel, thank heaven, still has the Golan; Syria is now a theater for (along with ISIS, Nusra, et al.) Iranian, Hizballah and, increasingly, Russian forces; and the Iranian nuclear deal stands to yield a bonanza of resources to the Iranian axis.
Amos Yadlin, a former chief of Israeli Military Intelligence, has made some proposals for enhanced U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation in the wake of the Iranian deal. Although some of the proposals greatly overrate the Obama administration’s willingness to counter Iran and goodwill toward Israel, that administration won’t be in office too much longer.
One measure Yadlin suggests the U.S. should take is “promoting recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights….”
Again, it is not something Obama will do; but he won’t be there forever. Fortifying Israeli sovereignty on the Golan would be, of course, only a tiny step in the face of the dangers posed by a calamitous deal. But it would be a worthwhile one.
It would signal that:
- Aggressions against Israel can entail costs, even territorial costs.
- The U.S. will not always reflexively pressure Israel to give up strategic assets, and can even support it in retaining them (applying that principle to the Jordan Valley would be another step forward).
- The U.S. understands the new situation on the Golan and will back Israel in confronting the threats now emanating from Syria.
Ultimately, with Israel a hub of stability, advanced intelligence capability, and military prowess in the increasingly chaotic Middle East, the Golan is an American asset as well.